Meet George Orwell

By William Watson
Mar 06, 2013

Setting aside the merits of the argument for a moment, what happened to Tom Flanagan last week was more than a little Orwellian. As everyone in the country and a good number of people outside it must know, at a public lecture in Lethbridge, Alta., Flanagan answered a question about child pornography by saying he had grave doubts about whether people who viewed “pictures,” a callous way of putting it as he has since acknowledged, should be imprisoned.

The episode’s first Orwellian aspect is that Flanagan was surreptitiously videoed and the video posted on YouTube. (If you look at the tape, it’s pretty clear the camera is being hidden: We have a great view of the questioner’s armpit.) Though Flanagan evidently wasn’t aware of the taping, it was a public event and he’s a public person and a media veteran to boot so he should have assumed it could have been. In 1984, Winston Smith had to worry that almost anything he said could get back to Big Brother. Today because of the miniaturization of recording devices virtually any event, public or private, can be recorded and uploaded, not to Big Brother, though he may well be watching, too, but to the digital commons. If you put any value on the soon to be very old-fashioned notion of privacy, it’s not clear which world is more frightening.

Another Orwellian aspect was the speed and scale of the backlash to Flanagan’s remarks. In 1984, citizens of Oceania drop everything to engage in the daily Two Minutes Hate, a mass shout-down of their state’s No. 1 enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, a senior Party official gone rogue. With the speed of social media these days, the condemnation of Flanagan’s comments came on almost as quickly and was certainly as furious. Unlike in Orwell, it wasn’t organized and in particular it wasn’t organized by the state, which is something to be grateful for. Nevertheless it had the force and breadth of a firestorm. Flanagan, who has worked longer and harder in this country’s interest than most of us, must have felt for a moment like Goldstein.

The final way in which Orwell comes to mind is that what Flanagan has effectively been found guilty of is speech crime, the first cousin of thought crime. True, he hasn’t literally been tried for it. But in the court of public opinion he has been convicted, tarred and feathered. With a couple of notable exceptions, including Mark Mercer’s column on this page last week, condemnation has been overwhelming. A search of Google News suggests that, against the storm, no one hazarded the classic defence: “I don’t agree with what he said but I will defend to the death his right to say it.”

Flanagan’s sentencing has been real and substantial. He has lost two jobs. The CBC fired him as a political commentator, thus depriving the country of the insights of one of the shrewdest political observers we have, while the University of Calgary announced his imminent retirement. I don’t know the details of what the University of Calgary did. Maybe the retirement was pending. But the announcement’s timing left the clear impression Flanagan was leaving because of what he had said. You would think the CBC, which is at least partly a journalistic enterprise, would stand up for freedom of speech. As for a university, which is wholly an enterprise seeking after truth, it should be even more uncompromising on this principle. But the CBC always has budgetary and political concerns while universities these days are too often prey to the intellectual conformity they of all institutions in society should most oppose.

The idea that Tom Flanagan would wish to encourage child pornography is as preposterous as, well, the idea that former prime minister Paul Martin would, too, as in fact a Conservative campaign directed by Flanagan briefly and disastrously (for the campaign) charged during the 2004 election.

Flanagan’s thinking evidently is that people who in private view this material online, however disgusting their sexual tastes may be to the rest of us, do not actually hurt anyone. There is a view that only violent criminals should be incarcerated. Are these voyeurs, pitiable or contemptible (choose your adjective) as they may be, truly violent? There is also the very real concern that the police powers needed to catch people committing non-violent crimes in private may verge on the Orwellian and that to preserve civil liberties we may not want to go there — even if that means not catching many viewers.

The counter-argument is made, and has in recent years been made by judges giving prison sentences to viewers of child pornography, that viewers are enablers of the people producing the pornography and therefore in effect as guilty. The first part of that construction is an empirical assertion. As with many empirical assertions, there is at least the possibility it is wrong. In an ordinary market, the enabler argument almost certainly is true. If you pay for something, you encourage its supply. But what one reads in the last few days is that much child pornography is posted by cells of perverts trading filth back and forth, often filming the abuse of their very own children in order to do so. Such people obviously should be apprehended, convicted and punished very severely indeed. But if voyeurs freeride on this Internet traffic without paying anything for it, does that therefore truly enable it? It could be, to use the economic term, that supply is inelastic.

I don’t ask you to agree with that argument. It may well be wrong, as Flanagan may well be wrong. Millions of Canadians clearly think he is. But surely the way to deal with these things in a non-Orwellian place such as Canada prides itself in being is not by firing people or shunning them but by explaining in open debate why they are wrong. 

William Watson teaches economics at McGill University